Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

So-Called Consumer Protection Law Hurts Consumers

Headline-seeking politicians like to enact laws that ostensibly protect consumers from predatory businesses. Item-pricing laws are a good example. They supposedly exist to protect consumers from being overcharged by unscrupulous grocery stores, even though research shows that stores are just as likely to make mistakes that benefit consumers. Requiring individual price tags, though, is an unambiguous negative for shoppers, raising prices by as much as 10 percent because of added labor costs. A column in the Wall Street Journal explains:

New York and several other states (California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island and sometimes in Connecticut) have an “Item Pricing Law” (IPL) requiring that, for most goods in retail stores, each item have its own individual price sticker; in other states a simple price tag on the shelf is considered sufficient. …Prices in IPL stores are 20 cents to 25 cents higher per item than in non-IPL stores. …The maximum estimate of the benefit of avoiding overcharges to consumers through IPLs is less that one cent per item. …The laws are a bad deal for consumers. How significant are these price differences – about a quarter per item? The average price of the items in our sample was about $2.50, so there is a 10% difference. This implies that prices of groceries are almost 10% higher in IPL stores. Food represents about 14% of the average family’s budget. IPLs, therefore, reduce the real incomes of families by more than 1% – a nontrivial amount. In sum, our study shows that IPLs impose net costs on consumers much greater than any potential benefit. Jurisdictions without them should not pass them, and jurisdictions with them should repeal them. In New York City, where costs and so prices are already very high, consumers would greatly benefit from a 10% reduction in grocery prices.

Net Worth Climbs to Record Level

New figures from the Federal Reserve show that household wealth in America is now more than $55 trillion. This is worth noting, both because it illustrates the tremendous wealth generated by an economy when tax rates are low and the burden of government is modest (at least compared to most of our friends in Europe) and because it should relieve some of the anxiety of people who fret that Americans do not save enough. To be sure, there are many households who do not have assets, and there are many government programs and tax policies that discourage saving, but there is not a crisis of inadequate savings in America. Investors’ Business Daily offers a cheerful assessment of the economy:

In the fourth quarter of 2006, total net worth — that is, everything people own minus what they owe — jumped 7.4% to $55.63 trillion. We’ve added as much wealth in the last decade as we did in our nation’s first 220 years. … the average household in America owns about $487,095 worth of stuff, free and clear. That’s a big jump from recent years. As recently as 2001, average household wealth was $373,170. So in five years we’ve become a third richer — a truly amazing fact. … Unemployment, at just 4.5%, is way below its long-term average. Real incomes are rising strongly. Inflation remains tame. Company profits — a measure of how efficient businesses are at using scarce resources — are at all-time highs. And, in addition to being richer, we live longer, healthier lives than ever. Even people on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder have far more than they did a decade ago.

Let America Benefit from Brain Drain

In a globalized economy, it is very easy for capital to cross national borders. This provides an excellent way for the market to punish governments that over-tax, over-spend, and over-regulate since capital will flow to jurisdictions with less statism. It also is increasingly easy for skilled labor to shift from less competitive nations to those with more opportunity. The United States often is at the top of the list of desired destinations for the world’s best-and-brightest. Unfortunately, even though these skilled workers and entrepreneurs would generate more wealth for America, they often are unable to overcome restrictive immigration laws. Investors’ Business Daily explains how this policy hurts the United States:

America has it all backward. Our country’s doors are open to the low-skilled while we keep out the talent that’s crucial to our competitiveness. …The global economy is a brain game, and the nations with the best-educated work forces are the ones that win. …there’s a talent gap that can be filled only by relaxing restrictions on foreign computer scientists, software engineers and other highly trained workers who want jobs in the U.S. …Much of the work in fields such as software development might still get done offshore. But that would not produce jobs here. More critically in the long run, it would deny America a stream of capable, creative people. For many visa holders, the temporary permit is a step toward permanent residency. Allowed to stay, they may do more than just work here. They may start their own businesses and create work for others. …The issue here isn’t America’s failure to control its borders. It’s that America does too good a job of excluding some of the people it most needs.

Iceland’s Laffer Curve

The Wall Street Journal notes that corporate tax revenue has jumped dramatically in Iceland, even though the corporate tax rate has been slashed to 18 percent. That sentence actually should say that revenues jumped because of the lower tax rate. Iceland is a clear example of the Laffer Curve. As the rate fell, companies had less reason to avoid taxes. The low rate also encouraged additional economic activity. Iceland’s workers are the biggest winners, of course, since they now enjoy higher incomes and more prosperity:

The benefits of low taxes are on full display in Iceland, which provides an almost perfect demonstration of the Laffer Curve. From 1991 to 2001, as the corporate-tax rate fell gradually to 18% from 45%, tax revenues tripled to 9.1 billion kronas ($134 million in today’s exchange rate) from just above 3 billion kronas. Since 2001, revenues more than tripled again to an estimated 33 billion kronas last year. Personal income-tax rates were cut gradually as well, to a flat rate of 22.75% this year from 33% in 1995. Meanwhile, the economy averaged annual growth rates of about 4% over the past decade.

The editorial also notes that tax competition is encouraging good policy in other European jurisdictions. It is not surprising that Swiss cantons are lowering tax rates, but it is noteworthy that even the tax-loving German politicians are being forced to reduce the tax burden:

In addition to Eastern Europe’s flat-tax movement, there is healthy rivalry from Switzerland, where the individual cantons can set their rates independently. Obwalden just lowered its corporate-tax rate to 6.6%, drawing criticism from the European Union, which called it an illegal subsidy. One of the biggest critics, Germany, recently announced that it will cut its corporate-tax rate to just below 30% next year from the current rate of about 38%.

U.S. Economic Misery — or Delusion?

Opponents of trade liberalization are painting themselves into a corner. They repeat endlessly that rising imports and trade deficits are bad for the U.S. economy and American workers. Imports and the trade deficits they fuel supposedly reduce U.S. employment and wages and impoverish American households as we borrow more and more and sell off the family jewels to support consumption. And since imports and trade deficits keep expanding, our economy must be getting worse, right?

Wrong. This morning the Labor Department reported that the U.S. unemployment rate fell again last month, to 4.5 percent, which must be full employment by anybody’s definition. Almost 100,000 net jobs were added in February, despite cold weather that crimped construction. Those job gains come on top of a revised net gain of 372,000 jobs in December and January, bringing net employment growth in the past four years to 6.5 million. Today’s report also confirms that real wages continue to rise for American workers.

Adding to the favorable picture, the Federal Reserve Board reported yesterday that the net household wealth of American families in the last quarter of 2006 reached a record $55.6 trillion. And that is net wealth: what we own after subtracting mortgage, consumer and other debts. Our net wealth is up 43 percent in the past four years, driven by increases not only in home values but also stock prices.

Granted, our infinitely complex, $13.5 trillion economy will have its ups and downs, but the current reality simply does not square with the politically tainted picture of economic misery and hopelessness being portrayed by certain critics of trade.

Should Michigan be Re-Named Western France?

There is ample competition for the dubious honor of being the state heading in the wrong direction at the fastest rate. California, New Jersey, Connecticut, and New York all can stake a claim to this prize. But Michigan politicians certainly are striving for recognition in this contest, and the Governor is leading the charge. As explained by the Wall Street Journal, she has been on a destructive tax-and-spending spree:

Re-elected last year, Ms. Granholm recently rewarded the voters by announcing some $1 billion in new fees and tax increases. …She would tax trucking, shopping, smoking, hunting, fishing, drinking beer and liquor, using a cell phone and, yes, even dying. …the levies are part of what has become a vicious cycle for Michigan: Poor growth causes lower revenues, so raise taxes, which leads to even poorer growth, so raise taxes again. The state has lost some 362,000 jobs since 2000 and the jobless rate in December was 7.1%, second highest in the country… The national rate is 4.6%. …per capita income in the state fell to its lowest level in 75 years in 2005, relative to the national average. …her budget would…pay off the teachers unions that support her with a new $178 per pupil spending increase, most of which would be absorbed by the bureaucracy and never see a classroom. This continues the state’s lack of spending restraint; between 1995 and 2007 Michigan spent an aggregate $14 billion above the rate of inflation and state population growth, according to a Mackinac study. …according to the Governor’s own Financial Advisory Panel, the state has amassed a $35 billion unfunded liability in its public-school health and retirement benefits. The state spends a whopping $1,200 per student per year on teacher and administrator benefits.

Medicare Rx: Let the Sickie-Dumping Begin

When Republicans created the Medicare prescription drug entitlement, I warned that the private drug plans would take steps to avoid sick seniors and enroll only healthy ones. Since the plans receive the same amount per senior, the healthy ones are a cash cow while the sickies are a liability.

It seems that the sickie-dumping has begun.

The Hill reports that one private drug plan, Sierra Health Services’ SierraRx, noticed that a lot of new and very costly enrollees were formerly enrolled in Humana Health Services’ Complete plan. Sierra alleges that Humana urged maybe 4,000 to 7,000 of its sickest enrollees to switch to SierraRx. According to the article:

Humana counters that it merely passed along information to its customers about a competing product that might better suit their needs, and said federal regulators approved its actions….

“Our goal was to make sure these people continued to have access to prescription coverage,” Humana’s director of media and public relations, Dick Brown, said. Humana also asserts that CMS approved the script the company used for these calls.

Brown would not explain, however, whether the company contacted each of the more than 400,000 Complete customers with the same information or if Humana targeted the calls to a subset of these beneficiaries  such as those with the highest drug costs, as Sierra implied.

Did they? Didn’t they? Was it intentional? Wasn’t it? Really, who cares. It doesn’t matter if the drug plans deliberately dump the sickies, because Part D will reward such behavior even if it’s unintentional.

That’s why the last chapter has not been written on the cost of Part D. The drug plans can play avoid-the-sickies for a while. But when enough plans lose that game, there won’t be many places for the sickies to go. Their expected utilization will be built into the projected costs of all drug plans, which means that younger workers will have to shell out more to fund the program. It also means that healthy seniors will have to shell out more — but they’ll scream so much that Congress will probably pass even more of the cost on to younger workers, either through tax hikes or price controls on prescription drugs.

Strap yourselves in. It’s going to be a wild ride.